Berlin’s poets duel it out on stage
Berlin - Deutsche Welle

Berlin’s poets duel it out on stage

Live literary entertainment in Berlin is in the middle of a slow and relentless revolution. The classic reading stage is being deposed by the cut-throat poetry slam, and the poetic old guard is grumbling.

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The poetry slam is one US import that young Germans have seized with uncharacteristic fervor. Slam nights in Berlin – the capital of the German scene – are chaotic and competitive and they rarely fail to draw unfamiliarly loud noises from those reserved German audiences.

Since it arrived in Germany some time at the end of the 90s, the slam has developed a frightening life of its own, and swelled into a monster. Hydra-headed, obviously. There are at least eight regular slams in the city every month, and the bigger ones – like the Bastard Slam and the Kreuzberg Slam – have long since had to abandon bars and move to theaters and small rock venues to find room for their audiences. The annual Berlin championship is now held in the cavernous 1,000-seat Volksbuehne (except the seats are removed to make more room).

The slam circuit has established itself so thoroughly now that gimmicks have started to emerge: There’s now a “Science Slam” (only scientific texts allowed) and an “Anti-Slam” (the worst poem wins).

A world for Byron, not Keats

But while each slam has its own character, there are common elements: the compere is typically a thin, floppy-haired young poet. He has obviously spent years in Germany’s interminable higher education system, but he has none of the lethargy of some dissolute student. And when he grips his microphone and gets the audience to test the limits of its vocal cords, so his assistant can measure decibel levels on his laptop, he does not resemble a sensitive young man about to shyly expose a little of his soul. The slam is a world for Byron, not Keats.

But maybe the most surprising thing about the Berlin slam nowadays is the overwhelming whiff of teenage hormones – audiences are young and getting younger, as are the slammers. More and more often, slam crowds are dotted with out-of-place-looking legal guardians, waiting uncertainly to chaperone their underage charges back home. The slam can no longer be dismissed as a university phenomenon – it has become a high school phenomenon, too.

But there is a very German precursor to the poetry slam, a separate branch of the literary evolutionary tree, still struggling on, but threatened by the success of this muscular cousin thriving on European shores. This is the great Berlin tradition of the “Lesebuehne” – the reading stage. Slams are like robust American gray squirrels introduced into the natural habitat of the delicate European red – the Lesebuehne squirrel, as it were.

A defining part of post-Wall Berlin

The Lesebuehne is a great, defining Berlin tradition. It made some of the city’s literary celebrities – the chronicler of late-90s Berlin Wladimir Kaminer emerged out of “Reformbuehne Heim & Welt,” a Lesebuehne held every Sunday at the original Russendisko Kaffee Burger since 1995. He has now been succeeded by the extraordinarily successful Uli Hannemann with his local Neukoelln stories.

Superficially, the Lesebuehne is just a slam without the competition. But this minor difference changes everything, of course, from the mood of the audience to the character of the texts. Invited authors take turns reading well-honed, subtle texts, without time restrictions or the pressure to win an audience with jokes in the first few lines. To add to the processional temper of the evening, the authors often wait their turn on stage, almost stroking their chins in respectful and self-conscious appreciation. The spectators, meanwhile, are getting older and fewer.

Of course, this is not the whole truth. Many of the more successful slammers love to perform at reading stages, and plenty of Lesebuehne veterans occasionally dip into the choppy waters of a slam. With its best authors forever signing book deals, the Lesebuehne is a long way from extinction. If for no other reason, this is because of the main thing they share – the artistic ego.

The only difference here is temperament. While the slam offers its stars an instant hit of gratification – the raw, incontrovertible victory in the white man’s rap battle – the Lesebuehne offers the slow, longer-lasting pleasure of being in Berlin’s literary elite. It’s just a matter of which way you like to be stroked.

Ben Knight has been following Berlin’s Lesebuehne/poetry slam scene for years, mainly to support his girlfriend Jacinta Nandi, a rising slam star and Berlin championship finalist. He also won this year’s special Valentine’s Day Anti-Slam by reading some of his extremely appalling poetry.

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